Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Is a Public Health Crisis

By: Shakun Kaushal

Disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s trial was supposed to begin in early September. It has been pushed back to January of 2020 due to new sexual assault allegations. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace must continue as sexual harassment is a health issue. 

Sexual harassment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Regardless of workplace environment or job description, a 2018 survey showed that 38 percent of women said they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Given that many companies have been accused of mishandling sexual harassment complaints against their employees, confronting sexual harassment in the workplace has become more imperative than ever before. 

Lawsuits by victims of sexual harassment have been met with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), compensations, and terminations with little to no regard to the health outcomes for victims. 

A study done by JAMA Internal Medicine found an association of sexual harassment and assault with women’s mental and physical health. The study found that those with a history of workplace sexual harassment had significantly higher odds of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Similarly, women who reported workplace sexual harassment had higher blood pressure than women who did not, at levels significant enough to put them at risk for stroke, aneurysms, kidney disease, heart attacks and other forms of heart disease.

This shows that sexual harassment has clear implications for women’s health.

While gender and power are the key dynamics in the silent compliance of workplace sexual harassment. It is important to also acknowledge racism and socio-economic factors that have a hand in sexual harassment in the workplace as well. Sexual harassment is systematic and institutionally discriminatory as much as it is rooted in gender inequality and intersected with class and race. Many of Weinstein’s victims were young, inexperienced actresses, assistants, and others beginning their careers in the industry, fearing reputational harm or blacklisting if they spoke their truth. Weinstein used a formidable combination of power, money, and intimidation– tools well equipped by the white patriarchy. But he didn’t do this alone. 

The current institutional system enabled it and still, to this day, continues to enable it.

With the code of silence that already surrounds victims, it is detrimental to women’s health to attempt to conceal the truth. 

As a nation, we are explicitly prioritizing businesses’ bottom lines with cover-ups and treating sexual harassment in the workplace as a scandal turned public relations issue instead of the public health crisis that it is. Viewing workplace sexual harassment as a pattern of depreciation and suppression of women will assist in understanding the complexities of this institutionalized health crisis.

We must continue to expose powerful figures like Harvey Weinstein and others who abuse their privilege, in order to create a safe and productive space for working women.